The opening manoeuvres may have begun. During the Antarctic Treaty consultative meeting in Buenos Aires last June, Russia stated its intention to start prospecting for minerals, oil and gas in the white continent and surrounding seas. The document submitted by the Russian delegation listed the key points of the “strategy for the development of the Russian Federation activities in the Antarctic for the period until 2020, and longer-term perspective”.
Whether or not this document ruffled feathers among the 48 treaty nations nobody knows, since the meetings are closed to outside observers and the contents of the discussions are not disclosed. However the Russian document was discreetly posted on the treaty secretariat’s website.
The Russian project to carry out “complex investigations of the Antarctic mineral, hydrocarbon and other natural resources … both on the continent and in surrounding waters” would jeopardise the Antarctic’s special legal status and go against the Madrid protocol, which makes this near-virgin territory a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science”. At present, any form of prospecting and mining is, in theory, forbidden.
Faced with the need for raw materials and against a backdrop of tensions with China, which is firmly placing its own pawns on the icecap, the former Spanish president, Felipé Gonzalez, and two former prime ministers, Bob Hawke (Australia) and Michel Rocard (France), have launched an appeal to ratify the Madrid protocol. In other words to do everything possible to persuade the stragglers to sign.
To date, 14 signatory states have yet to ratify the protocol, signed in the Spanish capital in 1991, which became effective seven years later. If those countries were to rally around the protocol, which is the principal environmental protection section of the Antarctic treaty system, it would gain more diplomatic clout. But would it be enough to prevent a rush to the Antarctic seabed? Following the declared Russian intention to do precisely that, an Australian thinktank, the Lowy Institute for International Policy, has recently published a report urging the Australian government to protect its national interests and “open discussions with like minded states in anticipation of sovereignty and resource issues being revisited in 2048”. (That being that date when the Madrid Protocol can be reviewed by the treaty nations.)
Australia, like France, New Zealand, Norway, the UK, Chile and Argentina, has territorial claims on the Antarctic that were frozen by the treaty. It is one of the strange aspects about the legal setup that while the territorial claims of the seven states are frozen, they are not actually challenged. Each state maintains its claims, but is committed to not exercising them.
Rocard, who, like Hawke, was one of the architects of the protocol, is confident that it will hold up. The protocol may be revised after 2048 if three-quarters of the 12 consultative states (who have a casting vote in the treaty system) agree. But according to Rocard, the world will be feeling the effects of increased global warning by then and getting oil and gas from the Antarctic will no longer seem so relevant.
“Today everyone is panicking because we are heading for a shortage of natural resources,” said Rocard. “And no coercive measures have been factored in to the treaty system to prevent anyone doing whatever they want.”
Like all international treaties this one depends on the good will of its signatories and it could be seriously undermined if one country were to take liberties with the text. If Russia’s aim was to test reactions with its document, it failed to trigger any official protests from the signatory nations at all, so that point should be taken very seriously. And all the more so since it comes at a time when China is reinforcing its own position in the Antarctic. China’s new base in Kunlun stands at an altitude of 4,000 metres and overlooks all the other research stations. That is a powerful symbol because there is apparently no clear scientific justification for the site, according to the consultative parties who authorise these research stations, supposedly on the sole criterion of scientific benefit.
“The patriotic titles of its stations … imply a latent nationalism in China’s policy,” observed the Lowy Institute in its report. “There are even reports that Kunlun station features a sign stating ‘Welcome to China’ implying Chinese territoriality and denial of Australia’s claim.” The Chinese station is located right in the middle of territory that Canberra considers to be Australian.
This article originally appeared in Le Monde